The Last Stars Of The Milky Way

Justin Streight - Author

Jul. 9 2014, Updated 4:03 p.m. ET

A new study from the University of Sheffield, shows that a super massive black hole could end the Milky Way’s ability to form new stars. The discovery give us an idea of when the last stars will be created and when the galaxy will go into a state of decay. The full study can be found in Nature.

The building block of new stars is gas. Cold simple hydrogen gas that after millions of years becomes condensed and so heavy that it eventually ignites into a fiery ball of energy like our sun.

Unfortunately, black holes, like the one that most likely sits at the center of the milky way, expel gases at mind boggling speeds.

How fast are “mind boggling speeds”?

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About 1 million kilometers an hour (over 600,000 miles per hour). Scientists have known about the jets of gases from black holes for years, but it has always been a mystery as to how they actually accelerate.

Now, thanks to the University of Sheffield research, scientists have evidence to show that streams of electrons moving at nearly the speed of light are accelerating the gas, which is moving so fast it shoots out of the galaxy. The researchers used images of the black hole in nearby galaxy IC5063 to measure the speeds of the gas jets and detect the electron streams.

So why is this discovery important for the Milky Way?

In 5 billion years, the Milky Way will collide with the nearby galaxy Andromeda in a flurry of galactic rearrangement that will take millions of years. In that process, gases will become concentrated into the center of the Milky Way, or what remains of it, and potentially fuel a super massive black hole.

The black hole will send so much gas flowing into the depths of space that the Milky Way may not be able to create new stars.

Another galaxy, Messier 106, is going through a similar transformation. Photos (like the one above) show streams of gas exiting into space along with any hope for new stars.

Scientists have questioned how long the Milky Way will produce stars for years. Apparent gas shortages have led some to believe that the galaxy may only have another billion years of star creating potential left anyways.

A recent discovery of massive gas reserves alleviated some of those concerns. The picture below shows hubble photos of the reservoir.


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